PUBLISHED Sunday, January 5th, 2014

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Quick First Step 0

      Casually saying, “Let’s say grace,“ before a meal has occurred many times, at many dinner tables, in many places all over the world. The term “grace” springs up daily, in fact. Countless moms and dads have printed the name “Grace” on birth certificates. Sarcastic snippets are lofted at late-comers to a party in the form of the classic wisecrack: “Oh, look who decided to grace us with their presence.” The five letter word gets sailed at those who make mistakes and “fall out of grace” with an employer. And the adjective “graceful” often interprets the movements of a ballerina’s pirouette or a couture gown’s flow as it glides down a fashion show runway.
      But one man explains the root of this word very, very well. Famous author, C.S. Lewis, once walked into a room full of scholars debating what makes Christianity different from all other religions. When Lewis learned what the hubbub was all about, he answered the question by simply saying, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”
      A person with faith in Jesus Christ often speaks of grace. About the death and resurrection of Jesus, who died for man’s sin to give him eternal life, representing the greatest act of grace. And how the acts of love, mercy and favor from God are all completely undeserved and unearned.
      Not too often, however, do people observe God’s grace quite like Greg Brown has over his 35 years of life. It started from a very early age. With his dad in the Air Force, nine-year-old Greg lived in a small family-sized home on a military base in Belgium. One day, while laying on his bed, Greg started talking in the direction of the ceiling. But his words went through the roof and into heaven.
      “God, I know I am supposed to preach, but I don’t want to be a pastor. I will give my life to you later. But right now, I don’t want that.”

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      To some, this may sound rebellious. But not to God. Greg had just raised his hand at church to accept Jesus about a year before. And it was clear to him, even at age nine, what God wanted him to do in life. So, God simply layered His grace on Greg’s life to help make that happen, whether now or later.

***
      Standing at six feet tall, Greg’s quickness and jumping ability proved vital to his basketball repertoire. Recruiters from a Division I college tried to convince Greg to bring his skill set to their school. But he opted for a full scholarship at a Division II university called St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. At age 18, dreams of the NBA often played out in his head. Scoring came easily to him. Even at a collegiate level, his quick first step meant very few defenders could keep up.
      But at the start of the season, Greg only made a couple of baskets. Not because he missed his shots, but because he didn’t play. Playing time came sparingly for the freshman, and frustration settled in.
      “That was my first major trial. You are on your own, you are by yourself, you have these major goals for yourself, and I wasn’t playing a whole lot,” Greg says. “That was when I started to lean on my faith a lot...I began to get into the Bible a lot and be more faithful to Him, and God kind of just took over that season.”
      After the first eight games, Greg found himself in the starting lineup. And shortly thereafter, he became the team’s second leading scorer. There was an explosive finesse about how he got by the defender and went to the basket.

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The team’s sluggish start built momentum, and Greg ended the season as the “Conference Freshman of the Year.“ To Greg, life looked smooth from there on out.
      “He was the guy every team tried to shut down,” Rhonney, a teammate and friend, remembers. “He had the quickest first step out of anyone I have ever played against.”
      A local sports writer might label him as a kid with raw talent. But Greg discerned his success as God’s grace.
      “He would even say back then, ‘I am confident because I have confidence in my God,’” Rhonney remembers. “It didn’t come off as conceited. It came off as this surety that everything would be okay because God had his back.”
      Therein lies grace. For Greg to succeed, he needed God’s grace. And for Greg to know his success came from God was grace in and of itself.
      Everything came easily to Greg, and people gravitated to him. He met a girl and started dating for the first time. People on the team often wanted to hang out with him. His influence on the court spilled over into his Christian faith as he started a van ministry to get people from the campus dorms to church. Week after week, he picked up anywhere from 10 to 20 people and drove them to church. Greg faithfully picked up anybody that showed a slight interest in Sunday service. Through this, he grew even more confident in God’s grace to push all of this success forward.
      There was a moment when all of the blessings in his life overwhelmed him. At a mid-week service near campus, Greg felt the weight of being blessed by God.
      “At the end, everyone had prayed, and I was the last one. And I tried to pray, but while I started praying, I broke down in tears. I couldn’t even finish my prayer. Even when I was driving everybody home, I cried the whole way. And in the midst of these tears, it was very clear to me that I was called to preach.”

***
      Several years passed before Greg would actually preach from a pulpit. God had more work to do in Greg before that day would come.
      Toward the end of the summer before his sophomore year of college, everything in his life began taking turns in the wrong direction. He and his girlfriend broke up. A close friend got pregnant, forcing her to drop out of school. And one of his friends committed suicide. For the first time in his life, Greg felt real pain.
      An emptiness sunk to the bottom of his gut. He had fewer and fewer answers to the very real problems happening right in front of him. God’s grace to “succeed” seemed to fade.
      But His grace never actually goes away. People simply experience different facets of His grace at different times.
      Just before basketball season started, a friend invited him out to a different church with some guest speakers. Greg thought nothing of it but decided to go on a whim. Words boomed from the stage as the guy on the microphone gave deep insights about Jesus. Sitting amongst several other people in the sanctuary, Greg’s heart started to pump in his chest. He knew he would be called up. He could feel it.
      “I was afraid they were going to call me out because I was going through a crazy season of my life,” Greg remembers. “Then the prophet says, ‘You, in the stripe shirt, get up here.’

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the stripe shirt, get up here.’ And he calls me up to the front and tells me to lift my hands in the air. He begins to speak over me. And like 1 Corinthians 14, he lays out all my business in front of everybody in the church, saying, ‘You’ve been going through this difficult time in your life, but God is going to use you to speak to people.’
      “He used the illustration of a bow and arrow,“ Greg continues. “‘God is pulling you back and creating tension, so He can shoot you out and use you. And the word of God is going to flow out of your belly.’ And when he said this, I started crying.”
      Greg knew this prayer was directly from Jesus, another act of grace. Rather than blindly face the trials that came his way for the next few years, this prayer would help sustain him and remind Greg that he wasn’t alone.
      Before his second basketball season started, Greg injured his Achilles tendon. His sophomore season of basketball crumbled, and the team’s confidence to win conference deflated. Hopelessness clouded his perspective, and Greg started flinging questions at God. Why is this all happening to me? Why am I going through this? Why did You let this happen? He walked the concrete paths of the campus with his head down and shoulders slunk. A thick fog surrounded him, constantly hindering his ability to feel happy.
      Greg understood the simple principle of being put through trials in order to strengthen one’s faith. But that was harder said than done.
      “God has called me to preach,” Greg says. “But everything in my life was going wrong, and I felt fully lost.”
      So, at 19 years old, Greg approached an Air Force recruiter and said, “Get me out of here as soon as possible.” Two weeks later, he left for basic training to train as a missile technician.

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      For the next three years, each year looked completely different than the previous one. The missile technician training frustrated him, yet landing a spot on the base varsity basketball team made it all worth it. He was later recruited by the Air Force Academy prep-school team and after one season there, he red-shirted for a season at the Academy. But when stress fractures in his feet knocked him out again, devastation hung heavily in his heart.
      Maybe a change of scenery will help, he thought. Once his stint in the Air Force ended, Texas A&M University-Commerce offered Greg a basketball scholarship. After one season, however, he was done. Injuries hindered his explosiveness and passion for the game faded, ending his basketball career.
      But, as He often does, God planted something in Greg throughout those years of being lost that not only sustained him but opened the doors to the calling put on his life long ago.
      Greg started reading...and reading...and reading.

***
      As circumstance after circumstance yielded another disappointment here and another empty promise there, Greg developed an addiction to reading the Bible. He devoured multiple books of the Bible at a time, even running through it from cover-to-cover five times in six months. Friends would often ask him why he poked his nose in the Bible at any free moment. He would look at them straight in the eye and say, “If I don’t read the Bible, I’ll be depressed by mid-day.”
      “I would read an hour in the morning and an hour at night. And I would read the Bible and commentaries together,” Greg explains.

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      His fervent approach to the written Word became scholarly. Pouring through multiple commentaries about different passages in the Bible became commonplace. No amount of reading became too much.
      Reading proved to be the key to his transition out of that place of pain and depression. And Greg realized just how much grace God had been layering on his life.
      Sure, the previous few years produced difficult times. But grace weaves people through every ebb and flow of life. It works in different ways in different times. And Greg witnessed that as the depression faded, a complete commitment to reading the Bible remained.
      Free from the difficulties of the past few years, Greg finished his schooling at Texas A&M Commerce and then applied to seminary at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, just outside of Chicago, Illinois. As a masters student, Greg had a full schedule. But he was wired to do more than a full plate. He became a graduate assistant for Trinity International University’s basketball team. And shortly after beginning his masters program, a position as a youth pastor at a local church opened up, and he took on the challenge.
      Working with about 30 middle and high schoolers, questions flew at him weekly. Greg took those questions and invested every spare moment to find the answers. This included reading three to five Christian books from Monday to Thursday and coming to the Friday night gatherings strapped with explanations.
      “He never got discouraged by how many kids did, or did not, come out. He always prepared the same way,” Tara, Greg’s wife, remembers. “He would read and study a lot. Whatever passage he was studying, he would grab whatever source he could to teach on that passage.”
      Greg met Tara three years after arriving in Chicago. She is not shy about being a proud wife. She loved watching him work with the kids and be someone they could look up to. He and Tara now live in Pohang, South Korea with their daughter Saiyah, where Greg is one of the pastors of the English Ministry at Handong Global University.On top of his pastoral duties, he also serves as a university chaplain and teaches two collegiate Bible courses. His intense capacity to soak up information and then reteach it is a daily occurrence.
      This, he frequently attests, can only be done by the grace of God.
      When reminiscing about his history with God, he rarely gets through more than five minutes without referencing a verse from the Bible. “It’s like in 1 Corinthians 14,” he slips into the middle of talking about someone praying for him. “In John 10,” he says before diving into a story about pastoring the youth. “In Philippians 4: 6-7,” he mentions before explaining the importance of reading. This happens with such fluency that nothing he says seems preachy. It only seems genuine. These words and verses have been inserted into his very being.
      The grace to be extremely well-read evolved into a desire to write books of his own.
      Last year, two of Greg’s manuscripts were picked up by Tate Publishing. The Bible Teacher’s Guide to First Peter is in the final editing phase. And Greg is in the final stages of writing The Bible Teacher’s Guide to Theology Proper: A Study of the Father.
      Bottom line, Greg is very smart. His eloquence gets revealed the minute he starts talking. And he can talk endlessly about theology and religion.
      But he doesn’t. Not often at least. Because Greg knows that all of it happens within the complexities of God’s grace.

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happens within the complexities of God’s grace. And he has very little to do with it.
      For Greg, God’s grace goes much further than being a good preacher. Or reading tons of literature on his faith. Grace goes, for lack of better wording, where Greg goes. And it always will.

***
      On a spring night in April of 2011, Greg got a call from his mom. She sounded panicked over the phone. Greg’s dad, the six-foot-four, 280 pound Air Force vet, had three strokes, five seizures and one heart attack. All in one sequential order. All in one afternoon.
      When they arrived at the hospital, Greg saw his dad helplessly lying in the bed. Tubes ran from his nose. Monitors and machines beeped next to the bed. And he could do nothing more than grunt because his mouth couldn’t formulate words. The excessive amount of brain trauma had affected all areas of his physical body.
      Greg and Tara knew they needed to help. So they committed to staying with him until he recovered. But during this time, they were in the thick of deciding whether to move to Indonesia or to South Korea for missionary work. Indonesia needed an answer immediately, but now with his dad in the hospital, Greg couldn’t give it. That left the other option of moving to South Korea on the table, which could only happen if Greg’s dad recovered from the strokes and heart attack fairly quickly.
      A few weeks later, the doctors said that the best possible timeline would be six months before his dad could eat on his own. The brain damage was so bad, simple motor functions needed time to develop.

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simple motor functions needed time to develop.
      This meant Greg needed to stay and help with his dad’s recovery. Although Greg and Tara desired to be missionaries in a foreign country, they knew it was by God’s grace that they were with his father.
      “I remember praying, “God, I can’t go on missions, which is my heart to go overseas, because I need to take care of my father. So, if You want me to go on missions, You will have to heal my father.”
      The next day, they went back to the hospital. And there stood Greg’s dad, scooping food into his mouth and saying a few words. Two feats that were not accomplishable the day before. He had even removed the tubes from his body and gotten out of bed earlier that day.
      The doctors took a CAT scan. But they couldn’t find the damage from the strokes on his brain. His dad had just experienced a miraculous healing.
      Greg’s father continued to recover after that. While he still suffered from short-term memory loss, his health began to come back. Greg and Tara stayed with his father for the next four months, helping him physically and even encouraging him to read the Bible three times a day.

***
      Greg and Tara’s presence proved vital to his dad’s recovery. The four months spent aiding his father may have felt like a delay for Greg’s career. But he chose to care and love for his father, trusting in God’s grace that everything would work out.
      In June 2011, with his dad almost fully healed, they were able to fly out to Korea.

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      “Handong has been a dream job for us,” Greg says. “We have a heart for missions, but God brings the nations to us. Students from all different countries and nations come to this school. And we have the opportunity to minister to those people.”
      Greg wakes up every morning excited to see Jesus move in his life and in others'. He has lived like this for many years. And plans on keeping it that way for many, many more. He knows at each turn, no matter what arrives, the journey he is on is covered. He just has to take that quick first step and watch God's grace unfold before him.
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